I first discovered clave about a year after I started dancing. Most people never really discover clave which is a pity, and don't really understand the role clave plays in the music and the interpretation of the music in the dance.
Many instruments used to play salsa rely on the clave direction. One example is the tumbao pattern. There are the regular open tones on the 4, 4& and 8, 8& but there are also additional open tones on either the 2&, 3 or the 6&, 7, depending on clave direction. This is played on the 3 side of the clave, so for a 2/3 clave you get the additional open tones on the 6&, 7, and for a 3/2 clave you get them on the 2&, 3. The other instruments follow their own rhythmic pattern convention when following the clave.
This also allows the clave to be implicit, meaning that the direction is first established, and no actual clave sound needs to be played. The other instruments still play "around" the implied clave.
Once you get a very good handle on the rhythm of various clave patterns, and perform the exercises of clapping whilst dancing, you eventually start to feel a new element in the dance that simply isn't there otherwise. Dancing "on clave" strictly speaking means dancing within the 4 beat structure or each musical measure, and it's a bit of a myth that you dance by stepping on each clave strike. There is extensive musical literature about this. However, when people talk about dancing "on clave", experienced dancers know that this is about internalising the rhythm until it's part of the core rhythm that you can implicitly feel, and allows you to modify your step in an improvisational manner that can emphasise parts of the clave. This is especially true when performing shines and body movement such as shoulder shakes.
There was a time when I hated the clave because it sounded offbeat and confusing. I liked the conga drum because it was hitting on the actual beats of the music.
That was my perception, and I put the blame on an instructor who have a lot (of details) to teach, but doesn't finish a paragraph before starting another. He told us about the clave and some other instruments to choose dancing on, and did not tell us about where they hit.
I don't intend to open up the thread to criticising bad teachers, but just to give an idea how I (and some people I know) became curious about body coordination and syncopation.
As I was researching, I found that the main instruments hit actually on upbeats a lot ... 2/3 clave hits on 2, 3, 5 and &8 ... 3/2 on 1, &4, 6 and 7 ... conga on 2, 4&, 6 and 8$.
So my understanding now (correct me if wrong) is that there is that imaginary equally divided time between each of the 8 steps which is normally taught for moves, and the varied time we put between our steps on the actual beats thrown on us when dancing to a song ... so if you are dancing on the clave, the actual time between each of your steps and the preceding or following steps is not always equal ... so if we want to count 1, 2, 3 .. 5, 6, 7 for our actual steps, we need to be aware that these do not necessarily represent the real order of the music beats.
Very interesting! Not clear though how coordination exercises can help in it, or it's different exercises/musicality exercises.
Good question! Normally, I don't find in myself the desire to let go of my partner to do some solo footwork. But if shines include (arguably) other body movements, then why is the focus on footwork in them? Why don't we cut right to Cuban motion for instance?
As far as the improvisation is concern, learning so many patterns or shines does not in itself enrich the content of your social dancing. Because if you don't feel comfortable with the lead and timings, your mind will go blank no matter how many patterns/shines you've learnt. From here comes my question about coordination exercises, as they may make you more in control over which body part moves, how and when. Just a thought ..
You make a good point. Shines are tricky - hard to remember, and they do nothing for your partner work (arguably). But they do give you an idea about different ways to interpret the same music you do partner patterns with. Also, not everybody emphasizes footwork in shines. I have taken Eddie Torres' classes, and yes, he is heavy on footwork and various timings. But there are also shines which make use of Cuban motion and body isolations, which make you really dance rather than perform dance patterns. For me shines are a way to express myself independently of my partner, and they are also very useful when turn patterns fall apart - do a Suzie Q, pick your partner back up, and keep going ;-)